Managing Upwards: How to make progress through influencing your supervisor

Managing Upwards: How to make progress through influencing your supervisor two women sat in a meeting

A few weeks ago, I ran a session for the United Nations Development Programme as part of their Virtual Career Lab series. The subject was ‘Managing Upwards: How to Make Progress Through Influencing Your Supervisor’. It was extremely popular so I thought it might be an interesting subject for a blog post or two.

Managing Upwards

Managing upwards is a skill that you won’t find in any job description, but it is core to your job if you want to do well.

Managing upwards up describes a situation where you are consciously working for the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss. It doesn’t mean avoiding work, rebelling, sucking up, trying to “fix” a bad manager or trying to manipulate your boss. Instead, it means understanding your boss’s position and requirements.  Then you can make yourself known as a stellar employee by exceeding their expectations and needs.  In essence, you are doing whatever you can to make your boss’s job easier.  That focus allows you to develop yourself and shape your manager’s perception of your work.

Managing upwards involves developing a good working relationship with your boss and clear communication. It also means customizing your work style and adapting your behaviours to better suit the preferences of your manager.

What managing upwards looks like

The employee who manages up effectively is one who often:

  • Anticipates problems and actively works to prevent them.
  • Adjusts their style and approach to better fit their manager’s preferences.
  • Is particularly flexible and willing to take on the projects no one wants.
  • Speaks truth to power when necessary (willing to tell the boss the ugly truth when others won’t).
  • Learns to navigate prickly or difficult boss personalities.

How can managing up help my career?

When done well, managing up makes your manager’s (and your) job easier. Understanding the best way to communicate with your boss, demonstrating that you care, and meeting goals won’t go unnoticed. Managing up can be especially important with a newly hired manager, or when you change teams. Demonstrating these behaviours from the outset will start your relationship off on the right foot. Managing up with a long-time boss can also help you renew your relationship. When done right, it creates a win-win situation for both parties.

Let’s look at the two key benefits:

1 – A positive and healthy professional relationship with your supervisor

As I’ve already mentioned, managing upwards can help you improve your relationship with your supervisor.  They’ll notice your hard work and applaud your proactivity. That means they are likely to trust you with important tasks that could help you develop new skills and responsibilities. You will build the respect and confidence of your current supervisor. And there’s hardly a better way to stand out as an asset than to have a track record of reliable, thoughtful work behind you.

2 – You will be more motivated and productive

In your day to day working life, you’ll be happier and more fulfilled. You’ll feel you’re working efficiently and communicating well with your boss. And you’ll be doing your job in a way that makes their job – and therefore everyone else’s – easier.

Sound good? So how do you go about it?

My experience is that there is one piece of advice that is important to act on.

In his book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey describes Habit 5 as “Seek first to understand; then to be understood.”  For me, that is the most important principle to remember when managing upwards. 

If you’re like most people focussed on developing your career, you probably seek first to be understood.  You want to get your point across and for your manager to respond to your needs and what’s important to you.  But in doing that, you are missing out a fundamental element of career development. That is the need to dovetail your needs and interests with the needs of the organization.  That means seeking first to understand your manager.

To manage upwards you need to develop a clear understanding of what your manager is trying to achieve.  You also need to understand more about them as a person and their preferred ways of working. 

In my next blog post I’ll talk more about that.  But in the meantime, please share your experience.  What have you learned about managing upwards that might be helpful to others?

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